Herald Continues to Skirt the Truth in Reporting on PAC

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Today the Miami Herald reinforced my belief in David Simon and why so many of my brethern, us ink-stained newspaper journalists, become so bitter and disenfranchised with our profession. It was the front page story about philanthropist Adrienne Arsht’s $30 million gift to the performing arts center, Miami’s monument to exuberant hubris and extravagance. Now I’m not hating on Mathew Pinzur and Daniel Chang, two of the finest news scribes at One Herald Plaza, who were probably just following chain of command from their editorial superiors. But their report read like it came straight from the email inbox of PAC chairman Ricky Arriola. The piece was a blatant puff job on the single biggest public boondoggle perpetuated on Miami-Dade’s citizenry by the town’s newspaper of record.

Although you would never know it from reading the six different versions of the Herald’s Arsht article available on Nexis, the online database that archives stories from just about every major news organization around the globe. While Pinzur and Chang do a good job of informing readers about the PAC’s construction delays and $134 million in cost overruns, there is no mention of how former Herald executives conspired with local leaders into accepting donated land the newspaper owned as part of the center’s footprint.

As a result, the Herald’s surrounding properties, including its bayside headquarters, became more attractive for developers. In fact, condo builder Pedro Martin has agreed to buy ten acres of land adjacent to the main building, for $190 million, from the newspaper’s parent McClatchy Co. He also has first dibs on Herald HQ if McClatchy ever decides to sell it. The sale was negotiated in 2005 by the Herald’s previous owner Knight-Ridder, whose head honchos were behind the push to place the PAC where it stands today. In some circles, that’s considered a conflict of interests.

Former New Times Staff Writer Jose Luis Jimenez documented the Herald’s role in a 2001 cover story about the PAC:

In 1988 Metro-Dade Mayor Steve Clark and Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez appointed a committee to settle the question. Its seven members included luminaries such as CenTrust Bank chairman (and later convicted felon) David Paul, Knight Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman, and Parker Thomson. The group quickly settled on Bicentennial Park. They intended to lobby commissioners for the site, and Chapman suggested the Herald's editorial board favored the move.

Then on April 28, 1988, the weekly Miami Today published a story that questioned the committee's tactics. The panel had not advertised its meetings, an apparent violation of the state's Sunshine Law. The committee disbanded shortly after publication of the article, which the Miami Herald parroted ten days later. (Chapman does not recall details of the meetings and there is no record of law-enforcement authorities studying the matter.) The embarrassing episode led the county commission to create a new 25-member citizens' group to oversee site selection. Thomson became chairman. In 1989 the citizens group selected six sites, including the Knight Ridder property on Biscayne Boulevard and NE Thirteenth Street. A year later members unanimously approved the Knight Ridder tract.

The choice ignited a firestorm of criticism, especially on Spanish-language radio. Angry critics argued the newspaper stood to earn millions on its adjoining real estate if the site were confirmed. They termed the Herald "the monster on the Bay" and questioned its objectivity.

Then-executive editor Doug Clifton took the unusual step of writing a signed column defending the coverage. "We are honorable people. Integrity, credibility, and veracity mean more to us than profit.... Our record for telling you the truth is long and distinguished," he wrote. "It would be a horrible breach of ethics to do anything less than report the story fully -- all sides, all points of view."

In June 1991 Sears, Roebuck and Company offered to donate an abandoned department store on 3.57 acres across from the Knight Ridder land. More than a year later, in October 1992, commissioners approved the entire 5.5-acre site for the center. Seth Gordon, a well-known publicist who quit the trust around this time, says there was strong peer pressure to approve the Biscayne site, though it clearly was imperfect. "Why is land free? Either it's useless or it gives someone an unfair advantage," he comments.

-- Francisco Alvarado

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